U.S. Coaxing Sunnis to Polls

Times Staff Writer

The Bush administration, worried that a Sunni Muslim boycott could turn Iraq’s Jan. 30 election into a fiasco, has launched a major diplomatic and political campaign to encourage Sunnis to vote, including support for a clandestine effort to attract leaders of the Iraqi insurgency to the political process.

At the same time, foreseeing an election in which a high turnout among Shiite Muslims and ethnic Kurds could leave Sunni Arabs feeling marginalized, the administration has signaled that it would support a quota system to guarantee Sunni politicians a share of seats in the new parliament and cabinet if their vote totals fall short.

U.S. officials say they have reason to be increasingly optimistic that a significant number of Sunni Arabs will vote in the election, which will determine the members of a national assembly that will serve as Iraq’s new government and write a new constitution.


But they acknowledge that turnout among Sunnis is still likely to be significantly lower than among Shiite Muslims and ethnic Kurds, because of anti-government sentiment and violence in areas grappling with the Sunni-led insurgency.

The result, some officials fear, could be an even deeper divide between the majority Shiites, who are virtually certain to dominate the new government, and the Sunni minority that enjoyed elite status under Saddam Hussein and which has become the main base of support for anti-American forces.

“We are doing everything we can ... to encourage maximum Sunni participation in the election,” Secretary of State Colin L. Powell said last week. “If we get a fairly decent Sunni turnout ... that would be good for the country and good for the process. If it was nobody at all, I think that would be problematic. But I don’t expect it to be nobody at all.”

In a poll released Friday by the International Republican Institute, the arm of the Republican Party that promotes democracy, 84% of Iraqi respondents said they planned to vote in the election, with 71% saying they “strongly intend” to vote. But there was a wide range in responses among different regions. In Sunni-dominated western Iraq, only 53% said they intended to vote and fewer than 20% said they strongly intended to vote -- compared with the 90% or more in some Kurdish and Shiite areas who said they strongly intended to vote.

Several Sunni leaders appealed to the Bush administration and interim Iraqi Prime Minister Iyad Allawi last month to postpone the election, saying Sunnis needed more time to organize political parties.

But Bush and Allawi rejected the plea. The U.S. administration felt that granting a delay would be seen as “awarding a victory to

Instead, the administration says it is supporting Allawi’s efforts to encourage Sunni participation and has undertaken additional measures of its own, including blunt private warnings to Sunni leaders that a boycott could prove catastrophic for their community.

“The Sunnis would have to live with their own decisions if they boycott,” one official said, summarizing the U.S. message. “Do they really want ... a civil war against a Shia population that outnumbers them 3 to 1?”

There have been more subtle appeals as well, including U.S.-encouraged efforts by the wealthy Sunni regimes of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, which are rumored to have offered financial support to Sunni politicians who agree to participate in the election. (U.S. officials refused to comment on those reports.)

At least partly because of those efforts, several major Sunni parties have submitted slates of candidates for the election, including some parties that initially threatened to boycott.

“An absence of Sunni candidates is no longer a problem,” one official said.

At the same time, the administration has quietly supported Allawi’s attempts to open secret talks with insurgent leaders, despite an official U.S. policy against negotiating with the guerrillas.

Powell stuck to the official hard line last week, telling reporters: “We will not talk with leaders of the insurgency. They’re terrorist, they’re murderers and they have no interest in a free, fair election.”

But although Powell ruled out direct U.S. negotiations with the insurgents, the secretary of State and the U.S. ambassador in Baghdad, John D. Negroponte, have encouraged Allawi to pursue the talks.

“Negroponte has essentially told [Allawi]: It’s your country; speak with whom you think you need to. Just don’t expect us to join those talks,” an official said.

So far, Allawi’s attempts to connect with the insurgents have met with no visible success and have been dismissed by some critics as little more than an election-season ploy. The prime minister held a highly publicized meeting this month with Sunni tribal leaders from Ramadi, the insurgency’s main hotbed. But a second public meeting was scratched -- partly for security reasons, but also because Allawi could not persuade enough Sunnis to participate, a U.S. official said.

Allawi told reporters in Baghdad last week that he had met with Sunni leaders “on the periphery of the so-called resistance.” He said he was making “a distinction between the terrorists and the insurgents, and we hope this will be the beginning of a divide which would help in bringing an end” to the fighting.

If Allawi succeeds in bringing any insurgent leaders into the political process, that could create another problem. It would, in effect, open a new debate about amnesty for former rebels and reopen a bitter old debate over de-Baathification, the policy of locking senior members of Hussein’s Baath Party out of Iraq’s new government. U.S. and Iraqi officials say Baathists are the main leaders of the insurgency.

De-Baathification has divided the Bush administration since L. Paul Bremer III, then head of the U.S.-led occupation authority, imposed the policy in May 2003. The White House and the Defense Department have been unyielding on allowing Baathists into the government, but some officials in the State Department, the Central Intelligence Agency and the uniformed military argue that shutting out the Baathists helped create the insurgency.

The administration tacitly supports one other overture to the Sunnis: a proposal that if the Sunni vote falls short because of violence, some seats in the new assembly could be held for Sunni politicians to claim later.

Powell said that option “is something that the Iraqis would have to make a decision on.”

Another official said one possibility the administration has discussed with Iraqi leaders was a deal to set aside a quota of seats in the parliament and cabinet for Sunni politicians, even if they draw fewer votes than Shiite or Kurdish candidates.

“We’re open to the idea of reserved seats for Iraqi Sunnis,” the official said. “We recognize that there is a balance that needs to be struck between a democratic process and a democratic outcome ... one that reflects Iraq’s ethnic, religious and gender diversity.”

He noted that Iraqi election law has set aside 25% of the seats in parliament for women. Under that precedent, he said, the administration believes that “appropriate Sunni representation would not be ... very difficult to achieve through a quota system. But that is for the Iraqis to work out.”

But so far, none of the Shiite-dominated political groups likely to win a majority has embraced the ideas, and some experts are skeptical that they will.

“It would be very hard for the Shia parties to do that after the fact,” said Noah Feldman, a law professor at New York University who helped draft Iraq’s interim constitution. Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, the most influential Shiite religious leader, “would likely say it was a terrible idea, because it would violate the principle of a majoritarian election.”

Feldman said that if Sunnis were underrepresented in the new assembly, “the great danger would be holding a constitutional negotiation in which the Shia and Kurds act as if they were the entire country.”

Senior U.S. officials insist that the picture is not so pessimistic. But some, speaking on condition they not be identified, acknowledge that the dangers are real.

“[It’s] going to be a hard slog,” a U.S. official in the region said. “There are some red lines that the Kurds and the Shias are very concerned about, [such as] whitewashing the crimes of the Baathists.

“And on the side of the Sunnis, personally I’m not sure that they get it, that they can’t run this country the way they did in the past.... They have been raised as a ruling class of high officials and warriors, and they are reluctant to give that up.”


Times staff writers Sonni Efron in Washington and Alissa J. Rubin in Baghdad contributed to this report.